Dominique Strauss-Kahn was all smiles yesterday as he strolled out of a Manhattan courtroom, the conditions of his pre-trial confinement reduced to the vanishing point. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, all but conceded that there are reasons to doubt the complaining witness’ tale of rape. “Our office’s commitment is to the truth and the facts,” he said.
This is a garden variety sort of sexual assault case pitting claims of a plutocrat’s lust against the allegations of a gold-digging immigrant. Strauss-Kahn claims there was consensual sexual contact; his accuser claims otherwise. Now questions by the briefcase full have arisen about the accuser’s credibility, thus raising the age-old question: can a prostitute be raped?
Sexual assault is an easy crime to define. In all its variants it comes down to this: nonconsensual sexual contact. Two adults can do the dirty dance if they choose, but, when one says “no,” the other proceeds at their peril. Thus, each encounter is a high stakes game of truth or dare. Even the most disreputable person can claim a lack of consent.
Strauss-Kahn stands accused of forcing a housemaid to submit to his desire in a luxury suite at the Sofitel Hotel in New York. He forced her to engage in oral sex we are told. “Mais, non,” he says. The act was consensual. The case turns on a simple test of credibility. Who will a jury believe, an international banker and politician, or a housekeeper?
That politicos regard the world as their harem is obvious enough. And a banker, no less. My lord, they screw people all the time on finances. What’s a little bump and grind taken from the hotel staff? It is easy enough to believe the allegations. They are unfortunately common enough.
But the complainant in this case has enough skeletons in her closet to fill a mid-sized cemetery. She has lied about her status as an immigrant, she’s a tax cheater, she’s previously made false claims of rape, she told tall tales about her life in her native Guinea, she appears to play banker of sorts herself, allowing her bank accounts to serve as laundering sites for a drug dealer, and she boasted on the telephone shortly after making these allegations to a compatriot in a way that suggested she regards the prosecution as a lotto ticket. When she found her way into Strauss-Kahn’s room, let’s just say she was lacking a moral compass.
So can a whore be raped?
Yes, prosecutors say all the time. Why is Mr. Vance saying otherwise now?
The woman’s lawyer claims Vance is afraid to lose a high-profile case. I doubt that is the reason. All lawyers run the risk of losing every time they submit a case to the jury. It goes with the turf.
What seems obvious is that Strauss-Kahn is getting special treatment. In a routine sexual assault case, one in which the defendant is not a rock star of international politics, cases are advanced so long as the so-called victim is prepared to testify. I’ve had many prosecutors express exasperation about the claims victims make. We’ve so empowered complaining witnesses in this country, calling them victims even before a finding of guilt has been made, that most prosecutors simply sigh and say, “Let the jury decide.”
That won’t happen in the Strauss-Kahn case. The complaining witness is certainly a liar. She will be lucky if she is not herself prosecuted on tax evasion. Her immigration status, too, may be at risk: she entered the country on fraudulent grounds. And if she is a money-launderer for a narcotics salesman, well, that too is a strike against her.
But the most damning allegations against her is that she appears to have come close to conceding to others that she was in this for the money. Of course, a true victim can sue for money damages, and, let’s face it, Strauss-Kahn has deep pockets. But there is a difference between gold-digging and victimhood.
This garden variety rape claim is a set piece in criminal courts throughout the land. Most defendants face the terror of trial before a jury that regards the presumption of innocence as a quaint textbook concept inapplicable in our courts of law. Many are the men, and they are mostly men, convicted on the testimony of one witness and one witness only, the complainant.
The case against Strauss-Kahn probably ought to be dropped. But so should all cases in which there is no corroboration of the complainant’s claim. Yes, whores can be raped. But so can innocent men. In this case, the conclusion is inescapable that a pinstriped plutocrat is walking away from a potential trial because he has money and clout. That is offensive to a sense of equal justice for all. Let a jury hear the whole truth and nothing but the truth in this case, as in all other cases of this sort, or, in the alternative, dump the lot of cases in which allegations come unsupported by any corroboration.
Cyrus Vance is neither a coward nor a hero. He is a member of the same political class that spawned Strauss-Kahn. Just why Vance will take care of a fellow plutocrat while seeking to stick it to Joe Sixpack is a question in need of an answer.